The man to have the most profound impact on the horror genre as we know it wasn’t Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, or even Edgar Allen Poe; it was Ed Gein, a mild-mannered Midwestern farmer.
I. The Movies
In 1960, British director Alfred Hitchcock terrified audiences with “Psycho,” the story of a man, his mother, and a rundown motel where pretty young girls (and nosey private eyes) disappear with alarming regularity. A stroke of cinematic brilliance, Psycho made 15 million dollars at the box office and was nominated for four Academy Awards. Considered one of the greatest movies ever made, it caused a controversy upon its release for a number of reasons, one being its “graphic” (for 1960) depiction of sex and violence; a woman is briefly seen in a bra, and two people are brutally murdered onscreen, their deaths in full view of the audience.
Despite the moral outrage surrounding it, Psycho set the bar for all horror films to follow, and was inducted into the Library of Congress’s Film Registry in 1992, deemed “Culturally or historically significant.”
Though it may be considered dull and slow paced by today’s standards, it was truly shocking stuff in 1960. It was (and is) one of those rare films that leaves its audience winded and shaking at the end.
Much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Fourteen years Psycho’s junior, Chainsaw premiered in the autumn of 1974. Made on a shoestring budget, the film, which follows a group of teenagers being picked off one-by-one by a family of backwoods cannibals, grossed 30 million dollars during its initial run. A contender for greatest film (horror or otherwise) of all time, Chainsaw’s enduring popularity has led to a number of sequels, several remakes, millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise, and even an Atari 2600 video game (one of the first horror-themed games ever released).
Unarguably one of the best horror films of all time, Chainsaw nevertheless owes much of its popularity to a misconception: as a marketing strategy, its director, Tobe Hooper, claimed that it was based on a true story. To this day, many fans believe that Leatherface and his depraved family of man-eaters actually existed. The fact of the matter is, they didn’t. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was not based on a true story.
But, like Psycho, it was inspired by one.
II. The Man
Born in 1906 La Crosse, Wisconsin, Ed Gein spent an oppressive childhood in nearby Plainfield. Completely dominated by his religious zealot mother, Gein was taught early on that the world was innately evil and that all women (with the exception of her) were whores. Neither he nor his brother, Henry, were allowed friends or a social life, and divided their time between school, chores, and nightly Bible readings.
Sheltered from the world until his father’s death in 1940, Gein began working odd jobs to help with household bills, making his money mainly by babysitting. In 1944, Henry Gein was killed in a brush fire on the family property, and Eddie has mother to himself.
But not for long.
Mother died in 1945, and Gein was crushed; he sealed her room off from the rest of the house and confined himself to a small room off the kitchen. During the ensuing years, Gein, who had always been an avid reader, began devouring lurid pulp magazines and anatomical texts.
Around 1947, he began visiting local cemeteries while in a “daze-like” state. With the aid of a mentally challenged man named Gus, Gein robbed something like forty graves, sometimes taking whole bodies, and others only choice bits and pieces.
In 1954, Gein graduated from grave robbery to murder. His first victim was Mary Hogan, a local tavern owner who went missing from her bar one night along with the cash register. Three years later, in 1957, a hardware store owner named Bernice Worden disappeared. Luckily, her son knew that Gein would be stopping by that day, and alerted authorities.
What the police found in that decaying farmhouse would haunt them for the rest of their lives: severed heads adorning the walls like fine art; tanned flesh stretched across lampshades and chair cushions; skulls sitting atop bedposts; and a box of female genitalia moldering in a corner. To cap it all off, Bernice Worden was in the kitchen, her headless body gutted and hanging from a meat hook.
The discovery of Gein’s crimes stunned the nation. An author named Robert Bloch, who lived a few towns over from Gein, heard about the story and made it into a book: “Psycho,” which Alfred Hitchcock later adapted. Tobe Hooper was also heavily inspired by the case (the chainsaw part was all him, though; trapped in a crowded mall during the holiday shopping season, he spotted a chainsaw in a hardware store and considered taking it up and cutting his way to the door). The events portrayed in Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre never happened, despite what you might hear to the contrary.
Ed Gein, however, did.
III. The Myth
Though he never wrote a word in his life, Gein did more to shape modern horror than almost anyone else; two of the most culturally significant horror films ever made owe their very existence to him. They are often referenced and paid homage to in films, books, and television shows, and frequently top various greatest ever lists. In the annals of crime, Gein’s case is still famous as one of the most bizarre and depraved. A number of biopics have been made about his life (such as Ed Gein, 2000, and Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield, 2007) and countless films have fictionalized his story, among them Three on a Meat Hook (1973), Deranged (1974), and Maniac (1980).
Unfortunately, Gein died in a mental asylum in 1984, never knowing the impact of his crimes. Today, his name is remembered by only a discerning few. His legacy, however, lives on.